Divining Japanese Surnames – by Emmett


As part of my brief and unstudied education in Japanese I have been working out how to read family names. This is a manageable place to start, for nearly all names are made of only two kanji, pictographic characters descended from Chinese. Once I stopped associating each character with a phonetic counterpart, I was able to divine the symbolic meaning of the names. The characters’ sounds change depending on placement, noun-consonant morphology, or age of the name. The character , for instance, almost always reads as “yama”; however, in older family names and place-names may read as “san” as in “Fujisan,” the famous mountain. In the greater picture, means “mountain.” Once I focused on this, the names of the people around me began to tell a story that is not always obvious in the wake of Japanese modernity.

I have a list of all my students’ names written in both kanji and in roman script. Sounding out the names was no problem, but I found quickly that learning the Japanese spelling of their names was necessary whenever sneaking up to a sleeping student and calling his name by reading it off the toes of his shoes. Once I learned what meaning the character represented, the phonetic reading stuck. Unlike names in the West, whose meanings have been sometimes completely lost through language shifts, misspellings, or deliberate alterations, the etymology of names in Japan are brilliantly clear. Some of them have poetic meanings: 金森 Kanamori, “gold forest”; 市川 青木 Aoki, “blue tree”; 金子 Kaneko, “gold child”; 河合 Kawai, “rivers meeting.” Many, however, hold fast to a dominantly agricultural theme: 田中 Tanaka, “rice field in the middle”; 吉田 Yoshida, “lucky rice field”; 杉森 Sugimori, “pine forest”; 野村 Nomura, “plain village”; 藤澤 Fujisawa, “wisteria swamp”; 溝口 Mizoguchi, “ditch opening”; 池田 Ikeda, “pond in the rice field.” I could go on with names in this theme, of whichField there are over 100,000 variations. It is obvious to me that something special is going on here, something overlooked or vestigial to the concrete and metal Japan I see around me. At the same time, however, I am never out of sight of a rice field. Yet, even these strictly regulated and tame plots of land seemed unnatural and removed from the world that must have existed to inspire such names. What is the story?

My immediate assumption was that Japanese family names were old, going back hundreds of years, and deeply tied to the way of life lead by the farmers, builders, hunters, explorers, sailors—those whose lives had escaped the notice of history. This is only half the truth, however. The Japanese today are descended from the peasant class of a feudalistic society, but their names are not as old as I had thought. Not until the 1870’s in the rushing tide of Meiji modernization did family names become standardized or even acquired at all. Having a name signified status and in a society with very carefully controlled levels of status, one’s name was an immediate and literal interpretation of where one came from. The agricultural origins of the names reveal something deep about the Japanese people that is often overlooked in Japan’s modern image: a people with a long history working with the land. Recognizing this link to the past in a world that seems to live simultaneously in celebration of and in opposition to its own history, where with every generation the aura of magic surrounding a festival, a shrine, a place, dims into tradition—a country which is experiencing the same kind of culture drain as any industrialized nation—felt revelatory and clarifying to this ever-widening mystery of Japan.

When one’s first impression of a people is through their media and youth culture, the alternate, quiet history is easily occluded. We have been telling our quiet history to ourselves for decades with folk songs, celebrations of local cooking, and more recently, grass-roots revivals of farmer’s markets and craft fairs. So much of Japan is rural, yet so little of its backcountry lifestyle is marketed internationally as part of the prevalent culture. Living here has been a yet unrivaled experience in discovering something hidden. Here were preserved the folk songs, raucous powerful taiko drumming, the universally sublime experience of rolling around on a tatami mat drunk off sake, and a much older way of living that predates the high-society culture summed up by Kyoto or the gleaming madness of Tokyo.

With the deciphering of a surname, suddenly the connections between the people who have forever existed in the plain of rice fields between the mountains in our prefecture and the mobile-phone wielding, iPod wearing, aggressively-urban youth today were made less ambiguous. The undeniable story told by a name remains the mark of a people possibly radically different from the scintillating cultural bricolage known to us now. Yet, the story is of an older people once unaware of history or nationhood; the Japanese as they existed before the rise of an ideology of industrial absolutism which swept away the kind of creative chaos which inspires folk legend and song as it did to nations before and after it.

Here in our prefecture, a name ties fast to the lines of local history. Very few names in the West still retain that kind of direct lineage to history, and as such, we pass without notice into the modern. The Japanese name, however, retains its singularity and reveals a dichotomy of past and present, which has been, to me, vital to understanding the Japanese and who they are. Theirs is a story told in words as pictures, connecting them to the earth. That many names were not chosen until just over a century ago signifies their importance as cultural markers. The Nomuras were plains villagers one hundred years ago, and now we see them as national bankers. While names give the impression of ancient history, they are in fact reminders of a tradition which gave way only a century ago—a historically short timeline for names. The choosing of names seems to be the last constant reminder of where this extremely unique culture came from.


Filed under Inspiration!, Japan, Language, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Divining Japanese Surnames – by Emmett

  1. Danette

    I love the educational piece on Japanese surnames. Very interesting.

  2. Elliott

    Wow… I really enjoy reading what you have to say Emmett. I myself glaze over 100s of kanjis and kanji’ified names all the time in my pursuit of learning this language and people, yet I have never stopped to consider thoughts such as these, or have the historical reference/interest to reference the phenomenon.

    Eloquently and sentimentally well-stated.

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